The Academy Awards’ New Criteria Will Institute Major Change, in a Reasonable Manner

Nicolas Valayannopoulos-Akrivou, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Five years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced an all-white set of 20 acting nominees. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy at the time, was quick to dismiss suggestions of having a diversity problem. Over the course of the next five years, much has changed. After nominating a second all-white group of actors, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, led by activist April Reign—a writer, lawyer, and former editor living in Washington DC—has pushed the Academy to make leaps to diversify a club of nominees that had been largely male and white in the past. 

One of these ambitious initiatives has been released for nearly three weeks, with plans to not simply change the award criteria for actors, but also to reshape who is hired to make the criteria in the first place. The criteria will be taken into effect by the 96th Academy Awards in 2024, where the new guidelines will change the eligibility of films for a best-picture nomination. Studios will need to meet two of four diversity standards defined later, in an effort to encourage them to enact more equitable hiring practices and broaden the range of stories that are told. 

To be considered, a film must have at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group in a significant role.

Despite the mixed reactions—some say the criteria are forcing directors to make choices that will harm movies’ productions, while many others praise the bold action—regarding the Academy’s new plans, on paper, the new criteria are not as strict as they may initially appear. 

For a film to pass the criteria, it needs to meet all the sub-requirements in two of the four main standards categories. The categories include: “Themes & narratives, creative leadership and project team, industry access and opportunities, audience development” (Press release). To clarify, for a film to have met standard one, it needs to have met one of the numerous sub-requirements; for example, to be considered, a film must have at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group in a significant role. However, if a film cannot do this, such as in the cases of The Irishman or The Tree of Life, where the stories told are about all-white families, there are many more available sub-requirements that a film can use to fulfill a standard, such as having a crew and direction led by underrepresented groups. 

The question is, given the large variety of standards, and the looseness of most of them, will anything truly change? Yes, of course, but how much? These new guidelines are changing the perception of financiers, studio executives, and filmmakers by forcing them to take into account the issue of underrepresentation more seriously. Moreover, once these guidelines start being enforced, Oscar voters can inform themselves on which movies had no issue sweeping all categories of the requirements, and which were able to pass simply with a diverse group of interns. At the minimum, this is an acknowledgment from the Academy that lack of diversity in the film industry is an issue and direct action needs to be taken to combat it. Although these guidelines are only for films that wish to be nominated for Best Picture, the Oscars have a significant influence, and their awards have long dictated the films that are greenlit for production. In the end, the Academy has understood that if films aren’t diverse, it’s not just the Oscars’ problem, but everybody’s.